Closing the Gap – It’s the economy, stupid

We need an economic strategy for Indigenous people built around an educated workforce, employment in real jobs & small business entrepreneurialism. Not around welfare & government dependency.

by Nyunggai Warren Mundine

In the wake of the latest Closing the Gap figures released this week, and with all the money thrown at it, Australia continues to stare into the abyss of Indigenous disadvantage with minimal progress in fixing it.

The gap exists because too many Indigenous people don’t participate in the real economy. It won’t close unless Indigenous policy shifts from welfare centricity to economic strategy.

Education and employment are the foundations of economic development. Without them, people can’t innovate or produce. If governments don’t believe we can get Indigenous kids to school and Indigenous adults to work, they should simply abandon Closing the Gap. Everything else is a waste of time and money because the gap will never close.

States and territories are responsible for education and receive substantial Commonwealth funding for it. They’re supposed to enforce the law. Yet generations of Indigenous children don’t attend school. It’s time for state and territory governments to do their job and ensure all Indigenous children go to school every day.

Everyone involved in education – teachers, unionists, bureaucrats, service providers, politicians, governments and parents – must be committed to the non-negotiable principle that Indigenous children must attend school every day. It should be a condition of Commonwealth funding that states and territories enable collection of individual school attendance data. And if schools aren’t attended or not resourced to teach effectively, relevant state and territory governments should be fined via a reduction in Commonwealth funding.

Between 1990 and 2015 Sub-Saharan Africa increased school enrolment from 52% to 80%. If one of the most structurally disadvantaged regions on the planet can get an extra 90 million children to school in two decades, Australia should be able to get a tiny fraction of that number of Indigenous children to school within a year.

Indigenous adults need to work in real jobs. Australia has low unemployment. Businesses talk of a skills shortage. Nearly 80% of Indigenous people live in urban and regional areas around the eastern and south-western coasts; areas with viable populations and real economies. There’s no excuse for not having a job in these areas.

Less than 22% of Indigenous Australians live in remote areas. I’ve met people who are paid to help job seekers find work in these places who’ve told me “there are no jobs” and wondered aloud how jobs can be created. This is a fallacy. There are jobs in remote areas but most aren’t done by locals. There’s also work that doesn’t get done. There are opportunities for people to set themselves up as a sole trader or small business and be hired to do that work. JSA providers, public servants and others who don’t know how to help locals find work shouldn’t be given responsibility to do so.

Economies have been built in remote and isolated places before – look at Sydney and Melbourne. When Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Cove he didn’t say “There are no jobs. Let’s go home.” Resource-rich regions in remote Australia can have real sustainable economies. But Sydney didn’t become a thriving city because of bureaucrats or not-for-profits or welfare or governments. It was built by individuals who invested their time, capital and capabilities in achieving personal prosperity for them and their families.

Economic Strategy

In Indigenous affairs there is preoccupation with things that don’t deliver economic development like welfare, government programs and services and grants. All centre on government dependency. When they don’t work, the typical response is to try more innovative or complicated versions of them, as if government dependency will somehow deliver economic development if you sex it up.

Cashless welfare and income management, for example, may tackle social issues but don’t help people get a job, buy a home or get a loan. For decades, the central plank of Indigenous employment policy was the Community Development Employment Program which employed Indigenous people on community projects and paid an income equivalent to welfare payments. Many “jobs” involved things people usually do without being paid, like cutting their own grass. Giving work-for-the-dole a fancy name and calling it “employment” isn’t a real job. None of these things generate economic development.

Empowered Communities is another initiative with government dependency at its core. Here “empowerment” means shifting control of government programs, services and funding to local Indigenous community groups within a complex organisational, governance and legal structure. This isn’t empowerment. Indigenous people aren’t empowered if they depend on government for everything, whether administered centrally or locally. Welfare and government dependency don’t generate economic development no matter how fancy you make them. It’s just lipstick on a pig.

Prime Minister Turnbull has been urged to articulate an economic strategy for Australia. We need an economic strategy for Indigenous people too; one built around an educated and skilled workforce, employment in real jobs and small business entrepreneurialism. Not welfare.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine is the Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 10 February 2016

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